We were discussing early diagnosis/identification and early intervention/therapy over on the Facebook forum for this blog and a reader, Megen Porter, made a deeply insightful comment: “It’s almost like early identification is important so you can intervene on yourself as a parent.”
What a brilliant way to put it, Megen! Thank you!
The standard meaning of the phrase early intervention is to jump in with hours and hours of therapy to try to get an Autistic child to be “indistinguishable from peers” as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. This means extinguishing Autistic behaviors, even absolutely harmless ones that are beneficial to the Autistic person but embarrassing or off-putting to onlookers, the classic example of which is hand flapping.
But Megen put a lovely spin on things by pointing out that it is the parents who need the early intervention. When autism can be recognized and identified early, the parents have a golden opportunity to begin working to understand the child they actually have. They can now learn about autistic neurology and stop interpreting their child through the wrong lens. Their child will be happier, healthier, and feel more love and acceptance for who they truly are once their parents’ fear and confusion has cleared away. Parents can avoid shaming their child for being different and can come to understand that their job is not to try to shape their child like a lump of wet clay but to celebrate who their child is and work from there.
Of course there will be some kinds of specialized education. All children get education at home and at school, and identifying children who are neurodivergent in various ways means that those children can get more targeted education that works with their brain, not against it. Autistic children might need extra mentoring in coping with processing sensory input. All children need to learn how to self-soothe — none are born knowing that. Autistic children often need extra mentoring in that area. Later, it might be extra important that an Autistic child gets academic directions in a written form in addition to or instead of a spoken form. Or an Autistic child might need help with finding a method of communication that works well for that child since speaking isn’t always the optimal choice. These kinds of interventions are very important.
But the most important early intervention — and the earlier the better! — is for the parents. Let’s all work to help parents of newly-identified Autistic children with their early intervention program. What can you do to help?
When someone tells you that their child was just diagnosed, don’t say “I’m sorry.” Say, “that’s great! Now you know what is going on. I’m so glad you have that information.” If you’re a hugger and they’re a hug-liking person, add a hug in there. Be friendly, encouraging, upbeat. If they are telling you this because your child is Autistic, there are other things you can say as well. Talk about the ways that it was helpful to learn about your child’s autism. The newly-aware parent is probably feeling overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. Emphasize what is good about getting the diagnosis to help that parent get a good start on this new phase of their life. Remind them that their child is still the beautiful, magical, wonderful child he or she has always been. Let them know that the only thing that has changed is that there is more information now, to help them understand their child better.
We should all be as supportive of one another as we possibly can — parents, children, adult Autistics, professionals, everyone. But let’s all try to be extra supportive of the newly-aware parents among us. If you are the parent of Autistic children, don’t white-wash your life but do spend a little extra time talking about the good things. Spend a little extra time talking about great solutions you found that made your child’s life better and, by extension, the whole family happier.
Remind the newly-aware parent that *all* parenting is challenging. This is especially important, because parents whose children are not Autistic cannot say something like that. A parent who does not have an Autistic child is offensive if they remind others that all parenting is challenging because they are not speaking from the same set of experiences, but if you are parenting an Autistic child, please do take the time, when it feels appropriate to you, to remind others that all parenting is challenging because it help to put the struggles of families with Autistic members into perspective. Too often I see *everything* blamed on autism. Other families say “it is hard to transition from one grade of school to the next,” or “that first day of kindergarten is so hard because so many kids get upset when they realize they’ve been left there without mom and dad,” or “the hormonal changes of pre-teen and teen years can be so chaotic!”
Remind that newly-aware parent that they get to say those things, too. Of course it is different with autism because we Autistic people experience and think about the world differently, so we add our own individual flavor to every challenge of growing up and living life. But we are not off in our own world; we live in the same world as the rest of you. We are struggling with the same things everyone is: learning, growing, changing. Our life stories are unique, but just because everything we experience and do is “autism colored” doesn’t mean that everything about our lives that is challenging for those around us is “all the fault of autism.” Gently help that newly-aware parent to realize that blaming autism for everything difficult is the same as saying, “my child’s worldview sucks.” Gently remind them that children are not very good at separating the ideas of “my brain is different and that is a horrible thing” from “I am a horrible thing.”
And, honestly, I think the kids got it right. Any time I try to set my autism on one side and heap all my troubles over there with it and set “me” on the other side and heap all my joys there, I get a massive cognitive dissonance headache. It can take a long time to get there, but help those newly-aware parents learn that autism is not something their child has; it is something their child is. Help them shift their perspective so that they don’t fall into the trap of hating autism and loving their child because that’s a Gordion knot that gets harder to cut through the longer it is being knotted together. If you try to stick a sword into that, you’re inevitably going to cut your child because it is impossible to find the place where autism ends and the child begins. Because that place isn’t there. There is a reason the medical books call autism “pervasive.” It is in every part of a person — there is no part of me that is not Autistic. My brain is an autistic brain and everything I know, see, taste, hear, think, remember, hope, wish, feel, and do comes from that autistic brain. Help the newly-aware parents understand that if they love their child (and you know they do!) they are loving an Autistic child and that’s a good thing.
Early intervention is so crucial for future success. The faster we can get to those newly-aware parents, the more quickly we can soothe their fears, lead them to acceptance, help them to see the joy that they are inheriting from their children every day. Sure, it will be hard — all parenting is. Yes, there are things they can do to increase their child’s chances of success. But they need to be canny and learn as quickly as possible that not every professional has their child’s best interests at heart. They can be choosy and only take those therapies and lessons that help their child to grow strong and healthy. If we can get to those newly-aware parents as quickly as possible, we can save their children a lot of suffering and the parents a lot of grief and guilt. As Megen said, “early identification is so important!” And it is because we have the best chance when we can all help newly-aware parents with the early intervention they need so badly in order to thrive and to help their children thrive.